Five Tips on Developing an Arts Internship Program for Students with Disabilities

By April Sullivan

The transitional age of 16-22 is an important time in life. Students start thinking beyond the school-ordered day and about how to apply their interests and skills to a job or career. Many students with disabilities find this transition very difficult. Some end up stuck at home watching TV or playing video games, unsure of how to move forward with less structure in their lives. VSA Texas created our Side by Side Internship program to meet the needs of young adults as they face this transition period. The following tips are provided to assist you in creating a successful arts internship program for students with disabilities to help them take that next step in life, using their creativity.

  1. Think broadly. We all want to be the rock star, lead actor, morning radio DJ. But we can’t start at the top. We have to work our way up and be realistic about our goals. At VSA Texas, we designed our internship program to focus on all areas of a creative field, from the roadie to the make-up designer to the music library organizer. A broad look at the field gives students multiple entry points to choose from at their current skill level.
  1. Pick passionate mentors. Find members of your creative community who are interested in sharing their steps to success with hands-on opportunities and the ability to model professional behavior, while sharing the fun details of being a local artist. They don’t have to be experts in working with interns with disabilities; that part can be supplemented by your staff and trained volunteers. They do, however, need to be passionate about their field and willing to be open and patient in sharing their knowledge.
  1. Make the interns work for their spot. We have designed a serious application process for our program. This helps us get to know our applicants and find out who is really passionate about the internship subject matter. It also helps us weed out individuals whose parents or teachers complete the application for them (without their input vs. as an accommodation) or those who are just looking for something (anything!) to do.   In order to apply for an internship, interns must send in an application, two letters of recommendation, and a resume. Sometimes we ask for a sample of the applicant’s work. Following a rigorous process will help you get a cohesive group of students who are all there for the same purpose.
  1. Be prepared for all challenges. Even after choosing the best mentors and the best interns, there are always issues that come up. We have found it useful to host an open house before the internship begins so that we can answer parents’ questions, let interns get used to our space, and observe our new interns in a social setting. This gives us a glimpse into the challenges we may face. You can’t really tell how each class is going to gel until the interns actually come together as a group. Assess what needs tweaking throughout the program so that each intern gets the most out of the experience.
  1. Have Fun! No one is having fun if you are not having fun. Remember you work in a creative field, so let your creativity lead the way. If you always keep your goal in mind, you generally can’t go wrong.
April Sullivan headshot

April Sullivan

April Sullivan has worked as the Artworks Director at VSA Texas for thirteen years. She manages the Side by Side Internship program, working with young adults with disabilities as they learn skills in film, music, animation, radio, and soon, photography.


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